Some critics are ripping into a ruling that suggests the US Supreme Court’s new conservative majority may have had it with strict COVID restrictions on worship services. Others, though, are overjoyed to see the First Amendment and religious liberty getting some long-overdue respect during this pandemic.
In previous cases dealing with COVID-19 and religious freedom, the high court was mostly letting governments slap restrictions on places of worship. But now it appears newcomer Amy Coney Barrett has solidified a new constitutionalist majority on the court. In a 5-to-4 ruling the justices declared “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
‘Strike at the Very Heart’ of Religious Liberty’
The court ruled New York’s tight restrictions on attendance at religious services “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”
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In concurring with the ruling, Justice Neal Gorsuch railed against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s diktats that find so many secular activities “essential” and religious activities not so.
Gorsuch wrote, “…the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all ‘essential’ while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.”
On Fox News, leading podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey commented, “What we saw in the case of Cuomo is he was discriminating against these religious institutions in a way he was not discriminating against secular institutions, like bike shops and other places. And so that is clearly a violation of the First Amendment. And it almost seemed like there was a malicious intent behind it.”
Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn was deeply involved in this case. He said after the ruling came out, “We see this as a good decision, opening up the understanding that First Amendment rights are much more powerful than the right for somebody to shop.”
On the other hand, among those who disagreed with the ruling was Chief Justice John Roberts.
In dissenting, Roberts wrote, “…it is a significant matter to override determinations made by public health officials concerning what is necessary for public safety in the midst of a deadly pandemic.”
‘Naturally, It Will Kill People’
The New York Times’ Paul Krugman tweeted, “The first major decision from the Trump-packed court – and, naturally, it will kill people.”
In a joint statement, the American Civil Liberties Union asserted, “The freedom to worship is one of our most cherished fundamental rights, but it does not include a license to harm others or endanger public health.” And the New York Civil Liberties Union stated, “The Supreme Court’s decision will, unfortunately, undermine New York’s efforts to curb the pandemic.”
Gov. Cuomo pooh-poohed the ruling, saying he’s already lightened the restrictions, at least for now. So he said of that ruling, “It’s irrelevant from any practical impact.”
‘There is No Question that Church is Essential’
On the other side, though, Harvest Christian Fellowship’s Greg Laurie said, “There is no question that church is essential and maybe that is more true today than any other time.”
Evangelist Franklin Graham noted President Trump’s influence in re-making the Court and protecting religious freedom. Graham tweeted, “I’m thankful for President Trump’s appointment of 3 conservative SCOTUS justices who ruled in favor of churches & against gov’t overreach in the state of New York.”
If a Biden Administration Comes After Them, Maybe the Supreme Court Will Save Them
Now it will be interesting to see if this new Court majority also sides with churches in California and New Jersey that are appealing to the Court for relief from strict Covid restrictions on them in their states.
A clue came from Justice Gorsuch, who wrote the Constitution can’t tolerate, “…edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques.”
This ruling for churches and against New York’s governor has given some relief to religious conservatives. They worry a possible Biden administration could threaten their religious liberties on a number of fronts. They’re a little more hopeful now that at least the US Supreme Court will be on their side.